My brother has been with his girlfriend for 6 months, and she’s spending Christmas with my family this year. My first thought was, Whoa. What the hell?! It’s not that I don’t like her. I do! But as someone who lived in the closet of a secret relationship for years, I cannot relate to the experience of having dated someone mere months and already having them join holiday times with the family.
For the first four or five years of our relationship, my (now) wife and I spent Christmases apart, appearing at our respective family gatherings as singles.
We were “the older cousin who was still single with no kids," under pressure in an ever-expanding family of new children, new marriages, new relationships. We had to engage our grandmothers in the annual confused conversation of why we were single and whether any of her friends had grandsons that we’d like.
The worst was when one of the old family friends son would stop by to say “hi”. Oh God! I could feel that he was attracted to me and tried to make flirty conversation, but during the whole awkward encounter, I knew that I had a girlfriend back home who I loved very much. Awkward and painful!
These experiences and conversations were compounded by the pain of distance, being apart from one another during the holidays when all we wanted was to be together, and the feeling of going it alone. It was even more painful to have so many secrets and lies having been told to every person in the family. No one likes to be a liar, especially to those we love, but during the holidays, you have to be especially crafty with the lies because there are so many family members wanting to know how you are, lots of questions and answers to craft.
It’s sad and painful to experience yourself as less than a whole person and to face the uncomfortable awareness of feeling like a liar.
I remember the secret phone calls my girlfriend and I would sneak after everyone went to bed or early in the morning. Christmas morning was the worst! Longing on this most special day to wake up next to one another, to exchange gifts with a family that included both of us instead of being alone. I think it was that missing and longing and lying that felt most painful to me during this time.
As a therapist, I hear stories like mine over and over again. But I also hear different kinds of stories where there is less lying and more blatant disapproval of one’s gayness from family members, if not a complete ignorance that you’ve told your family that you are gay and have a significant other. There is a painful distance that occurs between family members in these places. You can be in the same room as your family, talking or even doing something “fun” like playing a game and yet there’s a huge bubble of pain and rejection that fills any open space it can find.
I hear stories of people who want to spend the holidays with their family, but know that the Christmas they so long to have with them is only a dream. It is difficult to accept the truth that your family is not like a Norman Rockwell painting. If you find yourself in these stories I want you to know you are not alone in your experience.
Not only are there others experiencing the pain you know yourself, but the Christmas story points to you not being alone.
This week I’ve been reading The Queer Bible Commentary and have found connection and comfort in the story of Mary. In her story of unwed pregnancy, I’ve begun to see how God is more like us in the LGBTQ community; the sexual outlaws, those seen as dirty perverts who break “normal” acceptable standards of living.
We see God creating life in Mary in the form of Jesus outside the bounds of traditional “Christians get married first” norms. She was scared she’d be killed for her sin, or minimally divorced by Joseph, so she ran. She ran with fear and anxiety to her cousin. She was alone and full of shame.
Sound familiar? But here’s what’s so cool—Mary's cousin reminded her that God was with her. Mary’s story points a light to freedom and hope and a remembrance that God is with us and for us in the LGBTQ community, even where we are shrouded in experiences of sexual shame, secrets, lies and isolation. Jesus was born under the very circumstances that sound a lot like our daily lives. The story of this single, pregnant, unwed young woman becomes a story connection to many of us in the gay community God is with us, God is with you, God is within you.
While the connection to God through Mary is powerful, here’s some practical things you can do to help get you through the holidays with your families.
The main thing that’s important for you to do in order to survive the holiday is to reach out. Reach out and finding grounding with those who do know you’re gay and are supportive of you. Make sure you’re having phone calls with those people, coffee dates, go to the movies, anything!
If you have a therapist reach out and make an appointment. The need for therapy during this time is not a sign that you’re truly messed up, but you deserve the extra support. I promise you it will help to strategize with a knowing therapist about how to handle the specific dynamics of your family and have someone journey with you in the grief and anxiety.
This last point might sound weird coming from a therapist since most of us are all about you diving more fully into your pain, but sometimes we just need to get through it, so if nothing else works stay busy and distract yourself. I find distraction and staying busy can sometimes be the kindness thing we can offer ourselves.
It’s understandable if the holidays are a difficult time to be with your family, but you will get through this.
You are not alone. Remind yourself of Mary and let yourself cry out to her for her wisdom and peace during this time. She and I and others have gone before you and our spirit of hope is with you. Peace to you.
Photo via Wesley Lelieveld Photography